Perhaps no Russian spies, but conference on world affairs offers much else

The annual St. Petersburg conference now offering panels on art, film, as well as heavier topics
Published February 6

ST. PETERSBURG — Since it began in 2013, St. Petersburg’s annual conference on world affairs has sought to bring in a variety of speakers on a wide range of issues.

But organizers were jolted last year when a 29-year-old woman who spoke on two panels in 2016 was arrested on charges of spying for Russia.

This year’s list of speakers can’t promise anyone like Maria Butina, but it does offer a little something for everyone.

The seventh annual version of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which has focused primarily on geopolitical affairs, will also offer panels on art and film.

This expanded agenda came because organizers saw that international affairs can encompass multiple subjects, according to conference president Diane Seligsohn. She said politics plays a role in education, art and health — all issues that will be explored by the panels.

The conference will begin on Tuesday with a keynote address and jazz concert at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, then move to the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg for panel discussions on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

What began in 2013 as a one-day, 10-panel event that drew 200 people has grown substantially. This year more than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels.

The event is free and open to the public.

This year’s keynote speaker is Chas Freeman, a diplomat, writer and educator whose career carried him to the Middle East, China and Africa. He was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and he was the principal American interpreter during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.

Freeman’s address, titled “After the Trade War, a Real War with China?,” begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Palladium.

Following the address, Mayor Rick Kriseman will issue a proclamation declaring Feb. 11-16 International Week in St. Petersburg and a variety of food trucks will offer international fare.

A jazz concert featuring bassist and vocalist Nicki Parrott, pianist Rossano Sportiello, drummer Ed Metz and trumpeter James Suggs begins at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased on the conference website.

The panels on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be at USFSP’s University Student Center, which will host most of the geopolitical discussions, and the auditorium of the nearby Kate Tiedemann College of Business, where the art and film panels will convene.

Among the topics: “St. Petersburg: international dining destination”; “AIDs in the world: waiting for a cure”; “Do like the Canadians; legalize pot”; “Public art: what purpose does it serve?”; and “Climate change is real. What do we do now?”

What inspired the decision to add panels on art and film?

Thomas W. Smith, a USFSP political science professor and co-founder of the conference, said that while international affairs often spark conversations about bombs, intelligence and war, people also talk about culture, music, food and films.

This idea was echoed by Seligsohn, who said that when she first got involved with the conference in 2015 the topics were almost exclusively geopolitical.

She said conference organizers have gradually expanded to other topics and started to include events such as film screenings and book talks.

“Anything that’s international that can be looked at from an international perspective is of interest to us,” Seligsohn said.

Seligsohn and Smith both noted that including more arts panels may help attract a younger demographic. It also has given the conference more freedom to say yes to speakers with creative ideas.

That’s how Tom Shepard, director of the Youth Documentary Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., found his way onto the schedule. He will be on a panel that will screen two short films by immigrant U.S. high school students who are “navigating their identities in America.”

The films are Love Me by Joshua Sun, a filmmaker from China, and Finding Home by Yolande Morrison, a filmmaker from Jamaica who will also be on the panel.

“The power of film and power of art is that it reaches hearts and it reaches minds,” Shepard said. “We need people to report the facts and we need people to discuss those facts, but I think there’s a way in which film can open someone’s very hardened mind or heart to have a discussion a little outside of their comfort zone.”

Whitney Elfstrom is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Reach her at (727) 709-5111.

If you go

St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs

Keynote address: 5 p.m. Tuesday, veteran diplomat Chas Freeman, Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N

Panels and other events: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, University Student Center and Kate Tiedemann College of Business, USF St. Petersburg, 200 Sixth Ave. S

Free and open to the public. Advance registration is encouraged

Free parking at the Mahaffey Theater, 100 Fourth Ave. S, half a mile from the campus. Guests with disabilities can park in any handicapped space on campus with a visible handicap tag. They also can park in any non-handicap spot for four hours with a handicap tag. Attendees can still park on floors 2-5 in the garage for $5 a day, but organizers encourage guests to park at the Mahaffey.

For sign-up, schedule and list of speakers, see: